10 Questions for Sir Tim-Berners Lee

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What do you do after you make that thing that changes the world? If you’re Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and you breathed life into the World Wide Web, you make sure it gets used properly. Hence the Web Index, a massive list of statistics that measure how the Web is being used (or not) in each country.

You pretty much devised the code that created the Web. Of all the things you could choose to do, you’ve now created a Web Index. Why?

We need a web index to see how we’re doing, whether we’re using the Web to actually help humanity. Everybody told the Web Foundation lots of cute stories about great things happening with the Web. But there’s really no data.They’d tell you a story about something they’ve heard of, and you’d say, “Yeah, but is that happening mostly? What’s actually the most prevalent?” So the question was, what do we really have to do? How, with a little bit of effort, can we help people who are not currently members of the Internet or information society get on board?

How do you see the Web Index being used, ideally?

The great thing about the Web Index is it’s going to be open data. And so when it’s released, the data will be out there, and people will use data in all kinds of different ways for writing all kinds of different articles in newspapers, for doing all kinds of student projects, for trying out a hunch, for example. I suppose one of the big things is it’ll bring up a set of questions for every country. When they’re thinking about how much to spend on advancing the use of the Web in their country, it’ll give them an agenda. What should they do next?

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It’s a country by country index. Did it surprise you that Sweden came out on top?

I couldn’t have predicted the order among the top 10. There are all kinds of surprises you get when you dig down. For example, Iceland has the highest number of people online. It’s 95%.  The U.K. lags behind that, and the U.S. lags quite a long way behind that at 78%, and not getting very much bigger. The U.S. is not actually tackling the problem of the people who are not online. But there’s a lot more to this index than just being connected to the Internet. Is the Web actually being useful to people? Is it helping their health? Is it helping their education? If there’s nothing on it in their language, for example, then they’re not going to bother to get onto the Web.

Do you consider the Web finished?

It still isn’t as good a collaborative medium as I originally wanted 20 years ago. But it’s grown.  The Web itself is a platform —pages are starting to talk to each other, so it’s becoming very interactive, a sea of Web applications. There’s a whole lot more things that we realize we want to include on it. Meanwhile, every time we make the Web more powerful, we are widening the gap between those who have the Web and the people who don’t.

Does what happens on the Web ever shock you?

I’m shocked when I find a lot of people just use Internet for talking to people very much in the same town, very much the same type of person. At the last Web conference I talked about the idea of a stretch friend. A stretch friend would be somebody who’s like a university which might be a bit hard to get accepted into, but if you could it would be great.

Have you been surprised by the longevity of companies like Google and Facebook?

I don’t generally talk about individual companies in great detail, but it’s true that I said that monopolies are always something we should be concerned about because they tend to limit innovation. People were worried about Netscape, they were worried about Microsoft, now they’re worried about Google and Facebook. I think in a way it’s very efficient. A monopoly provider can do a lot of research because there are funds, income coming in, but on the other hand, it limits the amount of innovation in general, and we tend to see a cycle.

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How often do you write code these days?

I love it when I do get a chance to write some code. Over the summer break I was hacking a little bit of JavaScript. Not as much as I would have liked. And I still do all my taxes with home-brewed code.

Do you still get letters from people who blame you for spamming them?

There was a particular technical reason why that happened, because people found that every HTML document had W3.org somewhere at the top and they’d think: “Huh. That must mean that they’re the people sending me the spam mail.” But I haven’t seen that so much, or maybe my spam filters have gotten better at picking them out.

Are there Tim Berners-Lee groupies?

My Twitter following at least doubled after the London Olympic event. And there are a lot of Web groupies, people who have really taken to heart the openness of the Web, its functionality, and the beauty of its architecture. That’s very heartening. Personally, I’m happy not being a household word and not being generally known on the street.

In 1976, when you were in college, you built your first computer with a soldering iron and TTL gates and M6800 processor and an old TV. Do you still have it?

No. At some point I didn’t have the space to store it.  I wish I had.

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